Jeremy Sarber / The Bible Readers Podcast

Should we use musical instruments in church worship or sing a cappella?

Whether we should use musical instruments in church worship remains an ongoing, sometimes intense debate in at least a few Christian circles. According to all-knowing Google, less than three hundred people a month search for an answer to this question. Apparently, most of us never give it much thought, but there are some who want to know what the Bible says about it. Chances are, they want to know because someone has told them the church shouldn’t use instruments in worship.

In the Old Testament, King David commissions 4,000 men to “offer praises to the Lord with the instruments” (1Ch 23:5). Later, he reminds his son, Solomon, God was the author of his plan for the temple as well as the worship which would take place within it. He says, “All this he made clear to me in writing from the hand of the Lord, all the work to be done according to the plan” (1Ch 28:19).

The Psalter explicitly teaches us to worship God with various instruments. The final doxology of Psalms calls on “everything that has breath [to] praise the LORD” with instruments of wind, strings, and percussion (Ps 150:6).

In the New Testament, Paul writes, “Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph 5:18-19). “Making melody” may be the best translation of psallō in the Bible. It literally means “to move by a touch, to twitch; to strike” as one would do when playing an instrument. Other verses render the word narrowly as “sing” or “sing praises.” As Thayer notes, psallō does mean “to celebrate the praises of God in song,” but the translation “sing” seems to exclude musical instruments while the original word does not.

Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, wrote in the same common Greek of the New Testament and always used psallō in reference to playing instruments. Early church fathers, Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius, did the same. Eusebius even made a distinction between adō (sing) and psallō (play music) just as Paul did in Ephesians 5:19. (See A Cappella Music in the Public Worship of the Church by Everett Ferguson and Music in Early Christian Literature by James McKinnon)

The New Testament doesn’t mandate the use of musical instruments in church worship. Our first priority is praising God whether we use them or not. The evidence, however, shows we are well within our Christian liberty to play music. Paul says sing and make melody.

Looking beyond the Bible, the earliest known church hymn includes both lyrics and musical notations:

God ordained the use of instruments. His inspired word teaches us to “praise him with trumpet sound … lute and harp … tambourine … strings and pipe … sounding cymbals … loud clashing cymbals!” (Ps 150:3-5). Neither the Bible nor a single Christian writer from the earliest centuries of the church argues against their use. Why would anyone protest musical instruments in church worship?

Despite what Scripture says, the most conservative among us are worried about the potential misuse of instruments. They’d rather be safe than sorry by drawing a hard line. Perhaps you’ve witnessed so-called worship that was anything but. The band takes center stage and cranks the volume to eleven, creating an environment better suited for a secular rock concert than a time of pure worship. By banning all instruments, we avoid all problems.

This approach is undeniably Pharisaical. Rather than trust the church’s leadership to use discernment in what could become a gray area, we add one more commandment to God’s law: “Thou shalt not play musical instruments in church worship.” But as Richard Baxter once said, “Men think God’s laws too many and too strict, and yet make more of their own.”

Universally rejecting all musical instruments feels a bit like Peter’s argument against eating “all kinds of animals” (Ac 10:12). He said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean” (Ac 10:14). God responded, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Ac 10:15). The only difference is, musical accompaniment during worship wasn’t common or unclean in the first place.

I’ve heard a few apprehensive people warn against “artificially manufacturing emotional responses” with music. Again, discernment is always needed, but worship should be emotional. God seeks those who “worship in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:24). When David “took the lyre and played it” for King Saul, Saul was genuinely “refreshed and was well, and the harmful spirit departed from him” (1Sa 16:23). There was nothing artificial about music’s effect on Saul’s troubled soul.

We can and should discuss the placement of musicians in the sanctuary, the particular instruments they play, their style of music, their volume, and other details, but we shouldn’t support a complete ban of instruments. If the church chooses not to use them, that’s one thing. Altogether forbidding them for moralistic reasons is another.

When music is executed well, it will encourage the entire congregation to sing God’s praises. It will never overpower the singing nor will it make spectators out of the church who merely watch musicians perform on a stage. Ultimately, it will be spiritual, theological, emotional, and heavenly. For example: